The sound of a net thumping against the side of the boat caught the attention of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office marine enforcement unit Tuesday night.
In the darkness of St. Joseph Sound, four deputies in two boats came across a 25-foot vessel running in circles with its lights off — a telltale sign of poaching.
The marine unit started surveillance at 9:02 p.m., according to Sgt. Dwayne Somers, and by 9:40 p.m. deputies moved in to make the arrest.
Marvin Rankin Jr., 36, of Holiday faces charges of using an illegal net, improper carriage of prescribed nets in Florida waters, and improper net marking requirements.
Authorities say Rankin — and an assistant who was not charged — used a gill net to haul in 248 pounds of ladyfish.
Ladyfish is mainly used for bait and has little value for human consumption. The species currently sells for 50 cents per pound but can go up to $1.25 per pound later in the season, authorities said. That's when the poaching usually picks up.
"Sometimes we catch them and a lot of times we don't," Somers said. "Usually they're out there on the coldest nights of the year."
The gill nets Rankin is accused of using were outlawed statewide because of the environmental damage they cause. They are dropped in a wide circle, which is steadily tightened, until the fish get tangled in the thin mesh of the net. The fish can't swim forward because their bodies are too big and they can't back up because their gills get caught. They often end up dying in the mesh.
Not only do the nets catch the targeted fish, but they catch any other fish in the area — even ones not in season. Dragging the nets also damages plants on the gulf's floor.
Somers said he was surprised to find ladyfish poaching so early in the season because the prices are low and because when the water gets colder, the fish clump together, making them easier to catch.
In a single night, Somers said, a two-man fishing team can bring in 10,000 pounds of ladyfish.
"There's quite a risk these guys take when they do it," Somers said. In addition to felony charges, the fishermen can face the confiscation of their boats, motors and nets — all for a cheap fish.
Rankin, who was released from jail on $5,500 bail, could not be reached Wednesday.
The seized fish were sold to Hernando Beach Seafood in Tarpon Springs.
Jonathan Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.